Once upon a time it was considered commendable to excel -- at anything. Before the government-induced cancer of outcome-based everything, Americans honored excellence. Whether it was a student athlete who could run faster or the kid with the high SAT scores, distinguishing oneself from the crowd was once a desired goal and both recognized and admired.
Arguably no venue beyond athletics more clearly distinguishes those who excel from their peers than the military. Beyond just clearly defined skill levels and rank, the military has historically bestowed distinctive accoutrements in the form of badges, forages, patches and, yes, funny hats.
Every branch of the service has "special" units. The Navy has SEALS. The Air Force has Pararescue Jumpers (PJs), the Marines have Force Recon, and the Army has Paratroopers, Rangers and Special Forces.
Even within subcultures of the elite there are distinctions.
Some soldiers in the Army wear parachute wings. "Jump Wings" indicate a soldier has attended the physically and mentally challenging Jump school at Fort Benning, Ga., and has completed five parachute jumps. I still remember my graduation day from jump school with the sin of pride. Some (but not all) of those who wear "jump wings" may serve in an Airborne unit (such as the 101st Airborne or the 82nd Airborne). Those assigned to an Airborne unit are not only qualified to jump out of perfectly good airplanes, they are required to so routinely as part of their job. Those Airborne troops are distinguished by the maroon beret they have earned.
Some Airborne qualified troops volunteer for Special Forces school (as I did). It is physically and mentally more challenging than Airborne school. These "special" forces are authorized to wear a green beret. I used to have a poster behind my desk which was a green beret on a black background with two lines printed that read, "It says more about you ... than you can ever say about yourself." Please remember those words.
Ranger school is the most difficult, physically and mentally challenging personal test I have ever experienced. I arrived at Ranger school in the summer of 1971 in the best physical condition of my life. I was 22-years old and just recently graduated from Jump school. I was rock hard, cocky way beyond arrogant and bullet proof. Or so I thought -- until the harsh reality check of Ranger school taught me humility. It also gave me new insights into pain and fear, and the ability to manage both. Rangers are special. Rangers are awarded a yellow and black tab to wear on their left shoulder with the word "Ranger." Some (but not all) Ranger-qualified soldiers may be assigned to a Ranger unit. The Army has authorized the black beret for those assigned to Ranger units. It is distinctive headgear that, again, "says more about you ... than you can ever say about yourself," at least until June 14, 2001.
I recently received an e-mail from an unknown brother in Connecticut, Jeffrey S. Jasmine. I want to share the bulk of that e-mail with you.
He wrote, "In mid October, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki announced a new policy that he hopes will boost the dangerously low morale that pervades our Army. Beginning on June 14, 2001, the standard headgear for all soldiers in the Army will become a black beret. No pay raise to get our soldiers with families off of food stamps, no improvements to the dumps that pass for base housing, no breaks in sight from consecutive nation building missions in places most folks can't pronounce. Black berets for everybody is the silver bullet that will turn the Army's morale problem around.
"Presently the black beret is the exclusive headgear of the men of the 75th Ranger Regiment. The Rangers have a proud history that includes service in every conflict in this nation's history. They volunteered for the toughest of missions and always served with gallantry and prestige. They have evolved to the point that, today, they are quite simply the finest light infantry force in the world. Their specialty is being the first units in during low-intensity conflicts. They strike hard and move fast, securing the area until larger units can gear up and deploy.
"The 75th Ranger Regiment is made up of three battalions and a regimental headquarters unit. They maintain a constant state of readiness as they may be ordered to deploy to anywhere in the world at a moment's notice. To maintain the razor edge needed should they be called, these units train year round all over the globe. These men sacrifice things like family and social lives for the unit; too many of them have paid the ultimate price for their countrymen.
"The Ranger Regiment is an all-volunteer unit, which means that anyone that does not meet the standard in any way is immediately removed and reassigned. The right to wear the uniform of a Ranger is one to be earned in one of the toughest units in our military. The most recognizable symbol of that uniform is the black beret. Now the highest-ranking officer in the Army is going to bastardize this symbol of excellence by 'issuing' it to anyone who completes basic training.
"As a veteran of C Co. 1/75 Rangers, I am appalled at this despicable act. Active duty Rangers are under a gag order prohibiting them from commenting publicly on this matter. If this decision is to be reversed it is going to take grassroots action from veterans and other concerned citizens. I am writing to plead for your help in getting this important message out. I have posted an online petition opposing this decision. I would be honored if you would take a minute to sign your name. I would also humbly request any assistance you might be able to give in getting the word out. Col. David Hackworth posted this link in his weekly newsletter today, and the petition really appears to be taking off. It is my intention to get this petition to President Bush for his consideration.
"Airborne Rangers have always been there when their country has called. They are at this minute standing ready should they be needed. They deserve better treatment from their leaders than this. It is time for a grateful nation to repay these brave men."
I have signed Jeff's petition and would encourage you to do so as well.
Recently Jon Dougherty wrote a story about an Army Ranger to protest the beret decision with a hike to the nation's capital. Dave Scott is a former Army Ranger "planning a 750-mile trek with full pack and gear to protest Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki's recent decision to allow all soldiers to begin wearing black berets in June."
Jon wrote, "one high-profile critic of Shinseki's decision is Gen. Charles C. Krulak, the revered former commandant of the United States Marine Corps, who thinks the Army chief of staff's decision was confusing." He quoted Gen. Krulak's response to something I said, but an overly sensitive editor deleted my comment to the general. My original question was "Do you know Eric Shineski?" to which he replied, "Yes." I continued with a special request of Gen. Krulak: "Please tell him if or when you see him to kiss my Airborne butt."
"I really don't know why Eric did that. He's a good man, but I think this is one where he probably made a call that he is going to end up regretting -- and probably retracting," Krulak said. "One of my dear friends spent three tours in Vietnam with Special Forces and, when he read that on the front page of the Washington Post, it was to him the ultimate slap in the face. I mean, that would be like our Marine War Memorial, taking one of those Marines off of that statue."
Teddy Roosevelt once observed, "It is not the critic who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of deeds might have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, if he wins, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat."
Army beret -- whether maroon, green or black -- has (until June 14th) said
more about the man wearing it than he could ever say about himself. Please
lend your support to any and all efforts to encourage Gen. Shineski to
rescind an ill conceived decision that will yield unintended and negative